BMCR 2022.03.10

The medieval classic: twelfth-century Latin epic and the Virgilian commentary tradition

, The medieval classic: twelfth-century Latin epic and the Virgilian commentary tradition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780190091361 $99.00.

The Medieval Classic offers a revisionist evaluation of the influence of the Virgilian commentary tradition on four allegorical and historical Latin epics composed in the late twelfth century: Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus, John of Hauville’s Architrenius, Joseph of Exeter’s Ylias, and Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis. While previous scholarship has tended to downplay the direct impact of Virgil’s Aeneid on these poems, Haynes argues that their twelfth-century authors were in fact inspired profoundly by the commentary tradition that informed medieval readers about the meaning of Virgil’s poem. In short, he asserts that “we can best understand twelfth-century imitations of Virgil by understanding twelfth-century interpretations of Virgil” (5). What follows is a literary study of these poems in light of the rich tradition of Virgilian commentary that stretched from Servius and Fulgentius in late antiquity to Bernard Silvestris in the early twelfth century. The result is a novel approach to the history of the reception of the Aeneid that privileges medieval encounters with Virgil’s work mediated through allegorical commentary rather than the direct influence of the poem itself.

The introduction to the book lays the groundwork of the analysis to follow by presenting the four poems under consideration and providing some background about their authors, all of whom studied and taught in northern France (Rouen, Reims, and Paris) in the last two decades of the twelfth century. Haynes avoids committing himself to strict dates for the completion of their poems, opting instead to treat them as “dynamically responding to each other” (19) in a “classicizing arms race in the genre of epic” (22). Chapter 1 (“Allegorical Mimesis”) lays out Haynes’s methodology as it applies to his reading of Anticlaudianus and Architrenus. Allegorical readings of Homer and Virgil were prevalent in late antiquity and remained so throughout the Middle Ages, in no small part because this method of reading allowed Christian readers to accommodate explicitly pagan elements of their poems. Haynes argues that Alan of Lille and John of Hautville’s allegorical epics, in which men strive for perfection through the cultivation of knowledge and wisdom in episodes populated by personified virtues and vices, borrowed fundamental aspects of their structure not directly from Virgil’s poem, but rather from late antique commentaries that offered allegorical interpretations of the Aeneid. Chapter 2 (“The Anticlaudianus as Virgilian Allegory”) applies this reading to Alan of Lille’s poem, arguing that the first six books correspond to Fulgentius’s interpretation of the sixth book of the Aeneid, while the last three books bear the imprint of Fulgentius’s allegorical reading of Virgil’s entire poem. While scholars have struggled to explain the narrative structure of the Anticlaudianus, Haynes maintains that knowledge of Fulgentius’s widely read commentary on the Aeneid would have made the poem intelligible to medieval readers familiar with this tradition of allegorical reading. Chapter 3 (“The Architrenius as Virgilian Allegory”) unpacks John of Hauville’s poem in a similar manner with the same results. When the poem is read with sensitivity to allegorical commentaries on the Aeneid, its cascade of seemingly dislocated episodes coalesces into “a single narrative which progresses logically through distinct episodes to the end” (90). The unfamiliarity of modern readers with the “allegorical dimensions of the Virgilian tradition” (92) has caused them to overlook the formative role that these commentaries played in informing the structure of both twelfth-century poems.

The second half of the book turns to the historical poems: Joseph of Exeter’s Ylias (on the Trojan War) and Walter of Châtillon’s Alexandreis (on the exploits of Alexander the Great). Chapter 3 (“History in the Ylias and Alexandreis) roots the concerns of these twelfth-century poets about historical truth in their accounts of the past in the Aeneid commentary tradition, particulary the work of Servius, who called attention to Virgil’s many inaccuracies. By providing medieval readers with a reconstruction of a “hypo-Aeneid” (105) free of factual fallacies, Servius provided Joseph and Walter with a model of epic poetry that emphasized historical truth. This may have influenced their choice of source material for their epics that medieval readers deemed especially trustworthy: Dares Phrygius’s alleged eyewitness account On the Destruction of Troy for the Ylias and Quintus Curtius Rufus’s History of Alexander the Great for the Alexandreis. Chapter 4 (“Myth in the Ylias and Alexandreis) likewise points out the influence of Virgilian commentary tradition on Joseph and Walter’s depictions of pagan gods in their epics. Medieval readers of the Aeneid tended to demote the divine characters in the poem to mere personifications, so the attention to pagan gods as speaking actors in the Ylias and Alexandreis“announces in no uncertain terms that both of these epics will eschew the main epic tradition of the time (which looks to us quite Lucanian – devoid of divine beings) in favor of resurrecting an earlier style of epic exemplified by Homer and Virgil” (130). Moreover, Haynes argues that Joseph and Walter’s allegorical presentation of divine characters was often inspired by what they had read about the pagan gods in Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid. The final chapter of the book (“Blurring the Lines Between History and Allegory”) cautions modern readers to remain open to multiple readings of poems that we have characterized as “allegorical” or “historical.” Haynes argues that it was unlikely that medieval readers, informed as they were by a rich commentary tradition that privileged the discernment of hidden meanings in poetic texts, “would (or could) suddenly switch off their allegorizing tendencies upon reading contemporary texts” (168), even ones that modern scholars have classified as “historical” in character, like the Ylias and Alexandreis.

The Medieval Classic adds a welcome new dimension to the history of the reception of Virgil’s Aeneid in the Middle Ages. Revisionist in character and certain to provoke debate, the book succeeds in calling attention to the robust commentary tradition that informed how medieval readers understood the hidden meanings of Virgil’s Aeneid and in demonstrating the ways in which this tradition shaped the structure and presentation of Latin epic poetry in the late twelfth century. It should be noted that the analysis presented by Haynes is primarily literary. His study largely takes for granted the historical context in which these poets encountered these Virgilian commentaries and what was at stake in their literary duels in terms of patronage and prestige. Readers unfamiliar with the poems will find the plot synopses included as an appendix to the book particularly helpful.